It’s an old cliché to say that in the NFL, teams just need to get hot at the right time. Earn yourself a spot in the big dance, and anything can happen, or so it goes―and on the heels of a 17-9 win over the Cowboys, the back-from-the-dead Eagles will undoubtedly spend this week convincing themselves once again that that cliché is true.
With a win over the Giants in Week 17 (or a Cowboys loss to Washington), Philly can complete its late-season surge, secure an unlikely NFC East division title, and sneak into the playoffs for the third straight season. The Eagles have outperformed postseason expectations in each of the past two years, but is this year’s banged up, clearly flawed Eagles squad capable of mounting another deep playoff run?
Here’s Why They Could
Carson Wentz Is Playing His Best Football Lately
Wentz has drawn a fair amount of scrutiny this season, with some fans―and perhaps even a few of his teammates―lamenting the loss of the team’s former playoff hero, Nick Foles. But the fourth-year pro has caught fire lately, exhibiting the type of steely play in the past few weeks that has even the most staunch Foles truthers changing their tune: After completing 31 of 40 passes for 319 yards with one touchdown and no picks in the pivotal win over Dallas, Wentz has now thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions in his past three games, all wins for the Eagles. He’s been especially efficient late in games during that three-game win streak, fearlessly leading Philly on game-winning drives in both weeks 14 and 15 before steering them to victory on Sunday. To sum it up:
With the division on the line, playing with 4 of 8 skill-position players who weren't on an NFL roster at the start of the season, Carson Wentz completed 77.5% of his passes and averaged 8.0 YPA - both season highs.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 23, 2019
Crucially, Wentz played turnover-free football in Sunday’s win. His penchant for untimely fumbles and picks has plagued the Eagles this season, but the 26-year-old signal-caller took what the Cowboys defense was giving him, finding his open receivers while avoiding the types of forced throws that have led to giveaways in the past. And when Cowboys pass rusher Robert Quinn got home on a fourth-quarter sack, jarring the ball loose from Wentz’s hands, Wentz quickly fell on the ball. The Eagles finished on the plus side of the turnover battle (plus-one) for just the fourth time this season, moving their record in those games to 4-0. Turnover margin is a crucial metric for any team, but for an undermanned squad like the Eagles, it could be paramount: Philly simply can’t afford to play anything but nearly mistake-free football if it has any hope for a postseason push. That starts with Wentz.
Doug Pederson Can Still Scheme Up Ways to Win
The NFL season is a battle of attrition, and it’s one the Eagles have been losing for most of the season―especially on offense. DeSean Jackson’s been sidelined since Week 1, Alshon Jeffrey’s now on the injured reserve with a foot injury, Nelson Agholor’s out with a knee injury, Jordan Howard has missed six games with a shoulder issue, and Lane Johnson is nursing an ankle injury. With so many of the team’s key players on the sideline, Pederson and Co. have been forced to MacGyver a functional scheme out of paper clips and rubber bands.
Without a deep threat on the field, the team has instead worked the short and intermediate areas, augmenting the run game with screens and swing passes while boosting the frequency with which it gets Wentz out of the pocket on play-action bootlegs over the past few weeks. That tactic helps unlock some of Wentz’s natural playmaking talent. The Eagles have also leaned on more up-tempo looks, helping to keep defenses on their heels and unable to substitute while simplifying things for Wentz.
The Eagles have averaged 27 points per game during their past four in large part because of the offense’s ability to mount sustained, methodical drives down the field, with 10 10-plus-play drives in that stretch. If the Eagles have any hope for making some postseason noise, the offense must continue to execute efficiently between the 20s and punch it in for touchdowns at a high rate when they get to the red zone.
A Few New Go-to Guys Have Picked Up the Slack
Rookie running back Miles Sanders has hit his stride after an inconsistent first half of the season, racking up 100-plus scrimmage yards and three total touchdowns in the past two weeks. Sanders carried the ball 20 times for 79 yards and a score while adding five catches for 77 yards against the Cowboys, and his bottom line would’ve looked even better had he not pulled up and slid down late in the game (thus keeping the clock running and guaranteeing the win) on what would’ve ordinarily been a jail-break touchdown run. Sanders has emerged as the primary explosive element the team has missed since Jackson went down with a core muscle injury, factoring into the passing game on vertical routes while offering home-run-hitting potential from the backfield. Sanders quietly became just the fifth rookie this century to eclipse 500 rushing and 500 receiving yards in a season.
Meanwhile, no. 2 tight end Dallas Goedert has emerged as a focal point in the team’s passing attack as well. The second-year pro saw a team-high 12 targets on Sunday, reeling in nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in relief of Zach Ertz, who left the game briefly with a rib injury. This beautiful leaping grab in the first quarter pushed Philly out to an early 10-0 lead.
Dallas on Dallas crime.#DALvsPHI | #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/QT0wjh4RJj— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 22, 2019
Paired with Ertz (who returned to the game Sunday), Goedert’s rise gives the Eagles one of the most versatile tight end groups in the league, allowing Philly to run and pass out of two-tight-end sets and hide their tendencies.
In addition to the dynamic Sanders and Goedert, running back Boston Scott (a former sixth-rounder for the Saints who Philly claimed off New Orleans’s practice squad late last year) has given the team a boost in Howard’s absence, while former AAF standout (and former practice squad member) Greg Ward has provided a spark at the receiver spot. Even rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who struggled to even get onto the field earlier this year, is trending in the right direction after catching both of his targets for 39 yards in the win over the Cowboys.
The Eagles’ injury situation has forced the team to lean on depth far more than they’d have hoped, but a few of Philly’s young players have stepped in to fill out the ranks. If Sanders, Goedert, Scott, and a few others can keep making plays for this banged-up Eagles squad, it gives the team a chance to outplay expectations.
Here’s Why They Probably Won’t
The Offense Lacks Explosiveness
The Eagles’ ability to string together long scoring drives with so much regularity over the past month has been impressive, but it will be tougher for the team to reproduce those 10-plus-play possessions when the postseason rolls around and they’re facing the NFC’s best teams. Philly has lacked an explosive element to its aerial attack for most of the season, with just five pass plays of 40-plus yards (tied for third fewest in the league). And while Sanders (who has accounted for two of those plays) does provide some big-play ability, the receiver corps has been woefully ineffective downfield, notching zero 40-plus-yard receptions since Week 3 and just two of more than 30 yards in that stretch. Unless Jackson returns—and possibly even if he does—the team will be hard-pressed to figure out a way to open up their deep passing attack over the next few weeks.
They’ve Been Feasting on Bad Teams
The Eagles can play only who’s in front of them, but they’ve certainly benefited from a light late-season schedule. The team’s current three-game win streak has come against the slumping, underachieving Cowboys, the rebuilding Redskins, and the Eli Manning–led Giants―and we shouldn’t forget this team lost to the Dolphins in Week 13. Philly entered this week 15th in overall DVOA per Football Outsiders and has been aggressively middling across the board, ranking 15th on offense, 16th on defense, and 18th on special teams.
The Eagles do have two impressive wins on their résumé this year, a Week 8 blowout of the Bills and a Week 4 win over the Packers, but have otherwise come up short against quality opponents. If Philly can win the NFC East, it’d head into the postseason drawing the conference’s no. 5 seed—one of Seattle, San Francisco, or Minnesota. The Eagles will have to find a new gear in all three phases to compete come January.
The Kicking Game Is Suddenly Unreliable
The Eagles rewarded kicker Jake Elliott with a big-money, five-year extension in late November, but after starting the season 14-of-14 on field goal tries, the 24-year-old has regressed in the past three weeks. Elliott has missed four field goals in that stretch (attempts of 49 yards, 47 yards, 53 yards, and 55 yards), and while none of those miscues were of the “chip shot” variety, his sudden unreliability on deeper attempts could change the team’s strategy in both fourth-down and late-game situations.
Injuries Keep Piling Up
With the Eagles down to a receiver corps consisting of Ward, Arcega-Whiteside, and, if he’s healthy, Agholor, Wentz will be forced to shoulder a heavy burden in the passing game. The team can continue to funnel targets to its hot hands in Ertz (assuming he can play through his ribs injury), Goedert, and Sanders, but the injuries at the receiver spot rob Philly of a dynamic, field-stretching presence it may need to contend with postseason opponents. It hasn’t helped matters that All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson has been out with a high ankle sprain, either.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles seemed to be getting closer to full strength coming into this week but had another rash of injuries crop up against the Cowboys. Cornerback Ronald Darby exited the win against the Cowboys with a hip injury, and Jalen Mills was carted to the locker room with an ankle injury. An already-thin cornerbacks group was left relying on Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones. Up front, all-world defensive tackle Fletcher Cox left the game briefly with an elbow injury before returning, but his status for next week is worth monitoring. Philly needs to get past New York next week without losing any more major contributors; it may have already lost too many.